Linearity is the property of a mathematical relationship or function which means that it can be graphically represented as a straight line. Examples are the relationship of voltage and current across a resistor (Ohm's law), or the mass and weight of an object. Proportionality implies linearity, but linearity does not imply proportionality.
The homogeneity and additivity properties together are called the superposition principle. It can be shown that additivity implies homogeneity in all cases where α is rational; this is done by proving the case where α is a natural number by mathematical induction and then extending the result to arbitrary rational numbers. If f is assumed to be continuous as well, then this can be extended to show homogeneity for any real number α, using the fact that rationals form a dense subset of the reals.
In this definition, x is not necessarily a real number, but can in general be a member of any vector space. A more specific definition of linear function, not coinciding with the definition of linear map, is used in elementary mathematics.
The concept of linearity can be extended to linear operators. Important examples of linear operators include the derivative considered as a differential operator, and many constructed from it, such as del and the Laplacian. When a differential equation can be expressed in linear form, it is generally straightforward to solve by breaking the equation up into smaller pieces, solving each of those pieces, and summing the solutions.
Linear algebra is the branch of mathematics concerned with the study of vectors, vector spaces (also called linear spaces), linear transformations (also called linear maps), and systems of linear equations.
The word linear comes from the Latin word linearis, which means pertaining to or resembling a line. For a description of linear and nonlinear equations, see linear equation. Nonlinear equations and functions are of interest to physicists and mathematicians because they can be used to represent many natural phenomena, including chaos.
Over the reals, a linear equation is one of the forms:
Note that this usage of the term linear is not the same as in the section above, because linear polynomials over the real numbers do not in general satisfy either additivity or homogeneity. In fact, they do so if and only if b = 0. Hence, if b ≠ 0, the function is often called an affine function (see in greater generality affine transformation).
In Boolean algebra, a linear function is a function for which there exist such that
A Boolean function is linear if one of the following holds for the function's truth table:
Another way to express this is that each variable always makes a difference in the truth value of the operation or it never makes a difference.
In instrumentation, linearity means that for every change in the variable you are observing, you get the same change in the output of the measurement apparatus - this is highly desirable in scientific work. In general, instruments are close to linear over a useful certain range, and most useful within that range. In contrast, human senses are highly nonlinear- for instance, the brain totally ignores incoming light unless it exceeds a certain absolute threshold number of photons.
In electronics, the linear operating region of a device, for example a transistor, is where a dependent variable (such as the transistor collector current) is directly proportional to an independent variable (such as the base current). This ensures that an analog output is an accurate representation of an input, typically with higher amplitude (amplified). A typical example of linear equipment is a high fidelity audio amplifier, which must amplify a signal without changing its waveform. Others are linear filters, linear regulators, and linear amplifiers in general.
In most scientific and technological, as distinct from mathematical, applications, something may be described as linear if the characteristic is approximately but not exactly a straight line; and linearity may be valid only within a certain operating region—for example, a high-fidelity amplifier may distort a small signal, but sufficiently little to be acceptable (acceptable but imperfect linearity); and may distort very badly if the input exceeds a certain value, taking it away from the approximately linear part of the transfer function.
This section contains too-lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (September 2014)
There are three basic definitions for integral linearity in common use: independent linearity, zero-based linearity, and terminal, or end-point, linearity. In each case, linearity defines how well the device's actual performance across a specified operating range approximates a straight line. Linearity is usually measured in terms of a deviation, or non-linearity, from an ideal straight line and it is typically expressed in terms of percent of full scale, or in ppm (parts per million) of full scale. Typically, the straight line is obtained by performing a least-squares fit of the data. The three definitions vary in the manner in which the straight line is positioned relative to the actual device's performance. Also, all three of these definitions ignore any gain, or offset errors that may be present in the actual device's performance characteristics.
Many times a device's specifications will simply refer to linearity, with no other explanation as to which type of linearity is intended. In cases where a specification is expressed simply as linearity, it is assumed to imply independent linearity.
Independent linearity is probably the most commonly used linearity definition and is often found in the specifications for DMMs and ADCs, as well as devices like potentiometers. Independent linearity is defined as the maximum deviation of actual performance relative to a straight line, located such that it minimizes the maximum deviation. In that case there are no constraints placed upon the positioning of the straight line and it may be wherever necessary to minimize the deviations between it and the device's actual performance characteristic.
Zero-based linearity forces the lower range value of the straight line to be equal to the actual lower range value of the device's characteristic, but it does allow the line to be rotated to minimize the maximum deviation. In this case, since the positioning of the straight line is constrained by the requirement that the lower range values of the line and the device's characteristic be coincident, the non-linearity based on this definition will generally be larger than for independent linearity.
For terminal linearity, there is no flexibility allowed in the placement of the straight line in order to minimize the deviations. The straight line must be located such that each of its end-points coincides with the device's actual upper and lower range values. This means that the non-linearity measured by this definition will typically be larger than that measured by the independent, or the zero-based linearity definitions. This definition of linearity is often associated with ADCs, DACs and various sensors.A fourth linearity definition, absolute linearity, is sometimes also encountered. Absolute linearity is a variation of terminal linearity, in that it allows no flexibility in the placement of the straight line, however in this case the gain and offset errors of the actual device are included in the linearity measurement, making this the most difficult measure of a device's performance. For absolute linearity the end points of the straight line are defined by the ideal upper and lower range values for the device, rather than the actual values. The linearity error in this instance is the maximum deviation of the actual device's performance from ideal.
In military tactical formations, "linear formations" were adapted from phalanx-like formations of pike protected by handgunners towards shallow formations of handgunners protected by progressively fewer pikes. This kind of formation would get thinner until its extreme in the age of Wellington with the 'Thin Red Line'. It would eventually be replaced by skirmish order at the time of the invention of the breech-loading rifle that allowed soldiers to move and fire independently of the large-scale formations and fight in small, mobile units.
Linear is one of the five categories proposed by Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin to distinguish "Classic", or Renaissance art, from the Baroque. According to Wölfflin, painters of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael or Albrecht Dürer) are more linear than "painterly" Baroque painters of the seventeenth century (Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velázquez) because they primarily use outline to create shape. Linearity in art can also be referenced in digital art. For example, hypertext fiction can be an example of nonlinear narrative, but there are also websites designed to go in a specified, organized manner, following a linear path.
In measurement, the term "linear foot" refers to the number of feet in a straight line of material (such as lumber or fabric) generally without regard to the width. It is sometimes incorrectly referred to as "lineal feet"; however, "lineal" is typically reserved for usage when referring to ancestry or heredity. The words "linear" & "lineal"  both descend from the same root meaning, the Latin word for line, which is "linea".
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (March 2013)